This article first appeared in the Sunday Times.
George Orwell told us why anti-English leftists are out-of-touch losers.
There was a certain pleasure to be had in flicking from channel to channel as Boris Johnson’s “Get Brexit done” election campaign destroyed, in the twinkling of an exit poll, the hopes of those who had spent three-and-a-half years attempting to subvert the result of the 2016 referendum. Well, that was how I spent the early hours of Friday. It was hard to know who looked more gratifyingly furious: the proponents of the suddenly annihilated second vote on Brexit, or the broadcasters (I am thinking especially of Channel 4, whose news operation is just The Guardian with shorter words).
In The Guardian proper, one of its finest writers, Gary Younge, declared that “the electorate did not abandon Labour for the centre. They went . . . to the far right in England and Wales.” What is meant here by the stigmatising term “far right”? Jackboots on the march? No, just the quiet determination of English and Welsh people to have their vote for Brexit finally honoured. And so the Conservatives last week gained their highest share of the vote in the principality since 1900. A month ago this column forecast “there will be some extraordinary constituency results on December 12”: Welsh former coalmining areas turning Conservative blue is certainly that.
This was less commented on than the collapse of the “red wall” in the Midlands and the north of England — where some seats held uninterruptedly by Labour since 1922 fell to the Tories. But it tells the same story: the historic breakthrough under the command of the Old Etonian Boris Johnson was concentrated entirely in leave-voting Labour constituencies. This is why last week I argued that the so-called “centrists” who pushed a reluctant Corbyn to abandon the party’s commitment to honour the referendum result (which had served Labour well in the 2017 general election) should not be able to evade their responsibility for the imminent electoral debacle.
Given the low regard (to put it mildly) in which Tony Blair is now held in the party, it is bizarre that Labour’s fatal switch to a “second EU vote” was inextricably linked to the former leader’s manoeuvring in Brussels. He declared his “mission” was to persuade the UK to vote again and to get EU leaders to facilitate this. Blair had no time for Labour MPs such as Aberavon’s Stephen Kinnock, who sought a compromise deal with Theresa May that would have led to a so-called soft Brexit (and, in fact, might have saved Labour’s electoral bacon). By September this year, The Times was reporting from Brussels how “European governments now believe that it has been a mistake to back remainers such as Tony Blair and Lord Mandelson . . . in their efforts to use delays to the Brexit deadline to keep Britain inside the EU”. I wonder if Blair felt any responsibility as his former seat of Sedgefield fell to the Tories for the first time in 84 years.
Doubtless he would argue that the unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn was the principal cause of Labour’s worst election result since the 1930s. There is no denying the party leader’s absence of appeal beyond the “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” backing group and other members of the cult. But this is not either/or. There is an essential connection between the reason for Corbyn’s general unpopularity and the issue of Labour leave voters furious at the party’s deliberate obstruction of the 2016 referendum result.
This would be clear to anyone who read the account by The Times journalist Robert Crampton of his travels around the north of England during the campaign. He reported that many of those he encountered, who had supported Brexit and who told him how “hacked off” they were that it hadn’t been delivered, lived in shockingly straitened circumstances, “and yet, in spite of everything, they still love their country. Really love it.”
“Patriotism is in vogue as a fashion statement but out there in the provinces people really feel it and people really mean it. In London, not so much.”
And here’s why Corbyn was disliked by so many traditional Labour voters. It was not at all because of his (actually rather popular) manifesto, replete with renationalisation and loads of free stuff to be paid for by more taxes on billionaires. It was because he was seen as unpatriotic. The not singing the national anthem. The creepy friendships with Hamas and Hezbollah, with Irish republican terrorists, with the Argentine invader over the Falklands: in 1983 he had said “the whole thing [Falklands War] is a Tory plot to keep their money-making friends in business”.
Respectable working-class Labour voters had finally fingered Corbyn as someone who regards the very idea of the United Kingdom with, at best, cold indifference. And for millions of them, it is because of their deep love of their country that they don’t want it to be part of a European political construction, with a common passport and free movement (which has had a depressing effect on the wages of the lowest paid in the UK, according to the government’s independent Migration Advisory Committee).
If that seems irrational to those most bitterly opposed to Brexit, they should ask themselves why they, too, feel so emotional about it. It surely can’t be the fact that the UK economy might be a few per cent smaller in 20 years’ time than it would have been while remaining in the EU, as they constantly assert, as if it were the decisive argument. No, they too are motivated by passion and identity, not economics. Only in their case, the passion is for Britain to become less distinctively British and more “European” (though it’s remarkable how little most of them know about the institutions of the EU, which is not a cultural phenomenon but a bureaucratic and imperial one).
It was George Orwell who best captured this cast of mind, in his 1941 essay England Your England. Though a socialist himself, Orwell expressed his contempt for much of the well-to-do British left: “In the general patriotism of the country, they form a sort of island of dissident thought. England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution from horse-racing to suet puddings. It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true, that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during ‘God Save the King’ than of stealing from a poor box.”
Orwell would absolutely have recognised why, more than three-quarters of a century later, so many English and Welsh workers rejected the party that claimed to be the sole legitimate guardian of their interests but insulted what they hold most dear.
By Dominic Lawson.